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Reporting, cooking and living softly

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BY HANNAH J. RYAN
A painting hanging above Gail Jokerst’s stove depicts a chair pulled up to the front of an oven. There is where someone will sit, patiently, to watch their cookies turn gold.
A friend found this picture, which seemingly emulates the story Jokerst once heard about the secret of an excellent baker.
“She sat there (before the stove) in essence to make sure her cookies didn’t burn and removing the temptation to multi-task,” said Jokerst, a freelance journalist who lives in a cedar-sided cabin at the end of a dirt road, with windows looking out at the peaks of Glacier National Park.
To really do something well, you can’t wash dishes, do the laundry, talk on the phone and bake cookies at the same time.
“Time and cookies wait for no one,” she said.
This is a reflection of her life — that of a baker, writer, consultant and nature-lover — and how, if you focus on the task at hand, you can give it your best.
Jokerst first moved from Boston to West Glacier, Mont., 24 years ago, following her husband, a wildlife biologist and artist. At the time, the only work she could find was making quilts.
“To say it was a culture shock would be a vast understatement,” she said. “I found there was no way to make a living with my background in a small, touristy Montana town.”
She holds degrees in education and nutrition, and is often snowed in for long periods of time during the winter.
She asked Jackie Bissonnette, an acquaintance from church and the editor of The Downtowner, a now defunct publication promoting Kalispell businesses, for pointers on the craft of news writing, a interest of hers she could practice from her remote home.
Bissonnette told her the simplest way to learn was by doing it and offered Jokerst her first two assignments.
“Writing began to give me a new sense of community with all these people I was interviewing,” Jokerst said. “My world expanded and Montana became my own more and more.”
She began writing features on tourism and hiking, food and wildlife, volunteerism and natural resources. Her stories were published in Montana Magazine, The Spokesman-Review, Big Sky Journal, Montana Living, Montana Senior News and The Christian Science Monitor among others.
Jokerst identifies with a statement Tom Swick, travel editor for the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, made in one of his writing workshops. Swick said, “I don’t know why people think it’s hard to write, all you do is sit down at a keyboard and sweat blood.”
The most important part of the writing process is the interview, it’s obviously the lifeblood of a story, said Jokerst, who has conducted more than 400 interviews. The research for a feature story is like prepping for a college exam.
“You never walk into an interview cold turkey,” Jokerst said.
When facing her interviewee, she said there are always four defining goals she must accomplish before the conversation ends.
“You’re always looking for what might lead a story, what might end a story, excellent anecdotes and excellent quotes.”
Jokerst will further detail this process at the upcoming Goldenrod Writing Workshop where she will be a visiting faculty member.
Her favorite part of freelancing are the interviews, thus people stories are her specialty.
“Gail is gentle with people, she puts them at ease,” said Ellen Horowitz, a fellow writer and friend. “She gets these great stories from people who don’t always think what they do is a really big deal or anything special.”
Take the story for Montana Senior News that Jokerst has recently been working on. She found it under her own roof, more specifically, in her upstairs bathroom. After ascertaining that her editor would be interested in the life of a handyman, she sat in the bathroom and interviewed her plumber as he worked with his head under the sink, to catch the feel of his profession.
“She’s perceptive,” said Jack Love, editor/publisher of Montana Senior News magazine. “She finds people that present a good angle for her stories and the audience.”
Though she considers herself a writer, Jokerst said she’s never chosen to make a living by freelancing alone. She also does consulting work for food service companies, teaches writing courses at community colleges and sells baked goods at the local farmers market.
“I make way more money in the consulting business,” she said, “but I won’t give up freelancing because that’s where my heart is.”
Her patchwork life affords her the opportunity to do all the things she enjoys.
Sue Hansen, a reporter for Oregon Hunter Magazine, met Jokerst through OWAA.
“Gail writes from the heart, gets to know her subjects deeply and becomes friends with them before ever putting anything down on paper,” Hansen said.
She likens Jokerst’s nostalgic approach to the way she hikes.
“A one-mile hike might last two hours, we sure do take our time,” Hansen said.
They hike for a bit, stop and look around at the flora and fauna, sit down and chit chat about the natural world to which they’ve dedicated their professional and personal lives.
“Gail is a private person, she speaks through her writing and sends it off quietly,” Hansen said. “She was born too late, she would have been a good pioneer woman.”
Jokerst and her husband plan to hold pen and pastel until they are physically incapable of doing so. She hopes to expand her market, focusing more on freelance food writing and less on consulting. Maybe there’s a trip back East to visit friends and family. But mostly, Jokerst awaits summer, when the huckleberries are ripe; with long hours of sunshine that invite gentle hikes in her adopted, rural Montana.♦
Brought up wandering in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, Hannah J. Ryan continues to feed her curiosities by pursuing bachelor degrees in journalism and Spanish. She was the spring semester intern at OWAA headquarters. Contact her at hannah.ryan@umconnect.umt.edu.
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